Parshat Acharei Mot

Torah Reading for Week of April 10-16, 2011


“Jewish Integrity”
By Dr. J.B. Sacks, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

From whom can we learn to be holy? This week begins the holiness code, in which we find out how our Israelite ancestors can realize the biblical injunction for us to become a mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, “a community of priests and a holy people.”

In the midst of laying out Divine guidelines for our holy behavior, we read, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.  My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow my laws: I the Eternal am your G-d.”  (Leviticus 18:2-4)

The Sefat Emet (1847-1905) understands that we are not to imitate Egypt and Canaan in all our deeds, even in innocent matters such as clothing styles. Indeed, the Sifra, an early midrash on Leviticus, posits that this passage forbids Jews to attend the bloody entertainments of the Roman amphitheater, to practice various superstitious customs of the gentile world, and even to imitate gentile styles of hairdressing. These sources suggest that it is not just when non-Jewish practices offend our values that we should reject them, but even in seemingly innocuous cases of fashion, attendance at sports events or going to vote.

Nonetheless, we hear counter-voices to this tradition. The Talmud states that “the law of the land is the law” (Gittin 10b); in other words, Jews are responsible for following the secular laws of the jurisdiction in which they reside. This clearly undermines our verse. The champion of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), contends that the injunction only holds in some contexts, maintaining that we may “imitate the nations among who we live in things that are based on reason, but not on things relating to religion or superstition.”

Beyond this, I know that my own sense of self owes a great deal to what I have experienced and absorbed from the diverse communities in which I have lived and traveled. Seeing how mega-church communities welcome newcomers has taught me how to relate to spiritually unengaged Jews. Seeing the gay male community’s response to HIV, teaches me more about the need and profundity of community. Lyrics of popular music, Motown and more, have helped me discern my own Jewish values. Barack Obama’s leadership style reinforces my appreciation for dialogue and intellectual curiosity, even when I find myself in disagreement.

The secular world is not contrary to Judaism. The larger picture of what’s spiritually true and godly is not confined to what takes a Jewish-specific form. Moreover, outside of Chassidic enclaves, all generations now and future only know an intercultural landscape. A religion that asks them to build fences against rich and interesting outside influences relegates itself to irrelevance. Not all merits adoption or adaptation, of course. Nonetheless, by engaging the world creatively, spiritually and responsibly, we add to Tradition and thereby assure its greatness. Then, too, by bringing Judaism to bear when we walk in the world, we can help make the world a better place.

Our challenge, then, is to work not merely for Jewish survival but Jewish integrity and glory. We have and can absorb the outside perspectives without losing a sense of what is most valuable about our own traditions and teachings. We can validate all facets of our complex identities in the diverse world that HaShem forged and sanctioned. Who is holy? S/he who learns from everyone and everything. This is our challenge. This is our honor. May it also be our blessing.

Shabbat shalom!

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